Perhaps the most telling development of the last few weeks could turn out to be the news that The Mousetrap will not now be opening in October as originally announced. This results from the current uncertainty regarding political policy on the virus, possibly combined with the lack of any insurance should things go wrong.
This will come as a blow to those who were looking forward to seeing the show but also the wider theatregoing community who might have been hoping that the gradual normalisation was steadily heading in the right direction.
Going beyond that single example, the coronavirus pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster for theatre companies across the world. In a few places, practitioners are managing to recover to a degree, either because their countries have managed to stem the tide or relying on blind faith that, despite its rampant spread, promoters will ignore it and hope for the best.
However, for most, the fallow period continues with no certainty as to when anything more than a modicum of normality will return. It is gradually becoming apparent that responses may owe more to political decision-making than absolute calculations regarding risk. In particular, this writer has been struck by the differences between the way in which theatres in New York and those in London have been treated and are reacting.
In the Big Apple, there has been virtually no live activity for the last six months. It seems that legislation governing the size of indoor gatherings has literally precluded the possibility of putting on any stage show legally. To depress readers even more, the Met has just abandoned its 2020–21 season completely, suggesting a very long haul ahead.
While, in theory, there may have been more opportunity to put on shows outside, that has also not been explored to any significant degree in New York to date and, given that we are now in October, is probably off the agenda for the next six months.
Setting the scene, until this week, New Yorkers have been unable to dine in restaurants, although pavements are packed with makeshift dining areas that have proved extremely popular. Even with the new relaxation, capacity is restricted to 25%, which is in stark contrast to many London restaurants that do little more than pay lip service to social distancing.
While it would be overstating the case to suggest that large numbers of London theatres are reopening while following strict social distancing, numbers are certainly growing and the Bridge, the National and those under the Nimax banner have all joined early starters like the Donmar, which had one burst of glory before shutting the doors again.
On both sides of the Atlantic, those who work in the theatre industry have been struggling, often with zero income and very little support from the respective powers that be. In effect, they have become charity cases with every chance that companies and individuals that persevere will need external financial support for 12 to 18 months at least.
The other side to the business model also differs, since companies in America seem to be able to charge at relatively realistic rates for online viewing of recorded plays or Zoom-style performances, while on this side of the Atlantic most punters seem to expect this kind of entertainment as a free offering, with somewhat grudging acceptance that a minority may be willing to make a small donation, if pushed.
There have been exceptions, the Old Vic having set up a business model that assumes punters will be willing to pay theatre ticket prices for unique live performances.
This is an area currently under development in both countries, since online companies are trying to set up umbrellas that will provide opportunities for creatives to market and sell their online offerings, most recently Broadway on Demand’s “new streaming platform for theatre devotees”, Showshare.
Regrettably, this story has a long way to run and, at the moment, it looks as if happy days will only be here again when a reliable vaccine is widely available.